In 1965, Jerry LeVias became the first African-American player to sign with a team in the Southwest Conference. Thankfully, that team was SMU. In 1966, LeVias' sophomore year, he helped lead the Mustangs to the SWC title and a trip to the Cotton Bowl. Looking back, it is easy to see that had LeVias not been there, SMU may not have won more than two or three games. Doak Walker commented that, "LeVias has all the moves. He'll make a good coach out of someone." He was a game-breaker, and that was never more evident than against Texas A&M. He returned a punt 83 yards to beat the Aggies in one of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.
After beating the Longhorns in Austin the week before, SMU was back home in the Cotton Bowl to take on Texas A&M. A&M's Ed Hargett hit end Tommy Maxwell with two touchdown passes for a 14-0 lead. The Aggies controlled the game for the first 29 minutes until Mac White was able to find the end zone from a yard out. The Mustangs went into halftime having cut the lead in half, 14-7.
The SMU offense was never able to get on track the entire day. Luckily for the Mustangs, Wayne Rape picked off a Hargett pass and returned it for a touchdown to tie the score at 14. The score remained tied until Jerry LeVias scored the winning touchdown for the Mustangs on one of the most exciting punt returns in school history.
The Mustang defense had found new life in the second half, keeping the Aggie offense from getting any real scoring threats. After forcing the Aggies to punt, LeVias went in to return the upcoming punt. He caught it at the SMU 17-yard line and was off to the races. He made the first wave of A&M defenders miss and found his way to the left sideline. Once he made it to the sideline, no one was going to catch him in the open field. He sprinted all the way to end zone as his teammates went wild as he ran by. LeVias had scored on an 83-yard punt return to give SMU a 21-14 victory.
Harold Ratliff of the associated press noted that, "Jerry LeVias was in only 66 plays in 1966, but accomplished more than any other player in the Southwest Conference." In his first season, LeVias made a name for himself as one of the greatest players ever to wear a Mustang uniform. Texas Tech coach J.T. King praised LeVias by saying, "He's the greatest big-play man that's been in this league for years and years, maybe since Doak Walker."
In 1966, LeVias broke Doak Walker's school record with 393 yards on 15 kickoff returns, one for 100 yards against Baylor to tie Kyle Rote's record. He caught seven touchdown passes for a new school record, plus he completed five of eight passes for 89 yards and a touchdown. He led the Southwest Conference in points with 54 on his way to being named All-SWC and receiving Top Sophomore and Lineman-of-the-Year awards.
Jerry LeVias was the most heralded SMU player since Doak Walker. However, it is worth noting that he was not just a great football player, but a great person too. His breathtaking punt return against A&M in 1966 will go down as one of the greatest plays in school history. In honor of the man who wore No. 23, we place Jerry LeVias' punt return at No. 23 on our countdown of the 90 Greatest Moments in SMU Football History.